Writing back – breaking down sport’s gender bias

Can encouraging more women into sports journalism help to even up the coverage given to men’s and women’s sport? Rob James, of our Corporate Communications Team, looks at the barriers and opportunities for the University of Derby’s aspiring female sports journalists

Remember Naomi Osaka’s stunning US Tennis Open victory in September?

Even if you don’t, there’s a fair chance that you’ll recall the sexism debate sparked by the on-court row between her opponent Serena Williams and umpire Carlos Ramos.

Williams had claimed that a male player would not be penalised as she had been for allegedly being coached from the side of the court during the match, and then for breaking her racquet in frustration.

Whether that’s the case or not, the debate resounded across the globe days after Osaka had banked her $3.8m winner’s cheque, which was precisely the same amount received by the men’s tournament winner, Novak Djokovic.

For nearly 50 years, tennis has been one of the more enlightened sports when it comes to prize money parity.

Golf, another sport noted for its lucrative prize pots, is a long par-five away from raising the equality flag in terms of pay, but then it has frequently been in the eye of the sexism storm, notably around club membership and access.

In the summer, one of the world’s leading female golfers, Derby’s own Mel Reid, put the focus on commercial sponsors who seek the endorsement of the game’s male players almost at the exclusion of the female stars, and called on companies to be “brave enough” to have women as the “face of golf” (1).

As if to prove her point, during a lean 2017 when, while recovering from injury, the male American golfer Tiger Woods played just one tournament all year and collected a conviction for reckless driving, he still received off-field (non-playing) earnings estimated at $42m.

The CEO of one of his major backers, Bridgestone Golf, has reportedly claimed that Woods’ endorsement alone – the ‘Tiger Effect’ – increases sales by 30%, even if he’s not playing (2).

An influential role?

Sport’s profile is undoubtedly at its highest through TV, and two leading UK charities have published studies in recent months which together paint a contrasting picture of the coverage of women’s sport.

Women in Sport, which aims for equal opportunities through sport, surveyed coverage in five European
countries and found that women’s sport accounted for no more than 10%, and as little as 2%, of all sport shown on TV. Almost a third of ‘Pay TV’ channels broadcast male sport only (3).

In the UK, most sport is still watched through free-to-air channels, such as ITV and the BBC, which has a female Director of Sport – former Olympic gymnast Barbara Slater – and a commitment to ensure that 30% of her department’s output is coverage of women’s sport.

The study concluded that the persistence of individual journalists and strong allies in the media is key to women’s sport achieving greater coverage in the UK, and this is perhaps where the University of Derby has an influential role, having launched the UK’s first Football Journalism degree three years ago.  The University has also established a scholarship in partnership with Derby County Ladies FC, which enables a limited number of players at the club to study football journalism.

When the University began to develop a reputation for promoting women in football journalism, as well as women’s football, the response was a mix of intrigue and a little scepticism, says lecturer Pete Lansley.

However, the sport’s governing bodies were receptive to how it could help to promote the women’s game, which in turn generated real opportunities for all of the sports journalism students, male and female.

“FIFA were brilliant and helped us to get to the U20 Women’s World Cup in France,” said Pete. “UEFA came to us and said, do you want to help us cover the U17s European Championships? And now the FA have come back to us and said ‘Euro 2020 – how can we get involved? How can we team up?’ So that is amazingly exciting.”

Character to succeed

There are also plans to cover the women’s World Cup in France next year, which may also be facilitated by the enthusiasm of the powers that be. These are clearly enviable opportunities to develop a very impressive CV for any sports hack, never mind one who is still effectively in training.

Following graduation though, the course’s female graduates are likely to find for some time yet that
sports journalism is still very much a male-dominated environment.

Undergraduate Molly Jennens, who also works as Press Officer for Birmingham City Women FC, notes that the inequality is most starkly illustrated when “you walk into a press box and there can be 20 men and you’re the only woman,” but she doesn’t feel her gender needs to be an issue which dominates her career.

“I think it’s about character more than anything,” she said. “If you’re quite ballsy and determined, you’re going to make it and nothing’s going to put you off, and that’s the attitude that I’ve tried to have.”

More female sports journalists, no matter how determined, doesn’t necessarily mean a proportionate increase in the coverage of women’s sport, however. That also requires decisions made by broadcasters and publishers about their sports agenda and what the audience, and advertisers, are likely to want.

A 2018 study, carried out by data firm Nielsen Sports and the Women’s Sport Trust, which aims to increase the visibility and impact of women’s sport, claimed that 59% of the UK population have an active interest in women’s sport, presenting what it describes as “a massive and largely untapped opportunity for brands and broadcasters”.

Sky Sports reported that viewing figures for its coverage of women’s sport – cricket, netball, hockey, rugby and golf – increased by 23% in 2017.

“All the indicators point to it being a very good time to invest in women’s sport,” suggested Nielsen’s Lynsey Douglas (4).

Overseas opportunities

While this was clearly targeted at British-based commercial and media organisations, there had already
been some significant developments elsewhere.

In 2017, A&E Networks, the US parent company of the reality TV channel Lifetime, noted for shows such as ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey’, concluded an agreement to show weekly National Women’s Soccer League matches, as well as providing the league with live-streaming, mobile apps and social media services. It certainly seemed to fit Lifetime’s stated position as “a female media brand” (5).

In Australia, Fox Sports made a commitment in March to “provide more platforms for female athletes to prosper across more sports”, including rugby league and Aussie rules football (6).

The University of Derby football journalism degree’s first graduate will be a female student. Holly Percival is graduating early in order to pursue her journalistic dream in the USA, where she can see more doors opening for her in broadcast sports journalism particularly – and not just because of the greater number of TV stations that extend from sea to shining sea.

“Over there, women dominate the industry,” she notes.“You’ll have the classic ‘this is an ex-player and so he’ll come and do punditry’, but in terms of acceptance there are a lot more female sports journalists over there.”

While academic research seems to bear out the claim that the UK’s sports desks are still beset by sexism, there is a note of optimism here at Derby (7).

“We’re running the only football journalism degree course in the English-speaking world that we know of,” says Pete Lansley.

“And it may be that there are girls who love football and like writing, but don’t even think of football journalism because there are so few role models out there.

“But that situation is improving.”

1 ‘Mel Reid tells all on golfsixes, growing women’s golf, new coach and UL international crown’, Bret Lasky, www.lgpa.com, 9 May 2018
2 ‘Tiger Woods is still the highest-paid golfer on Earth—here’s how much he makes’, Abigail Hess, www.cnbc.com, 10 August 2018
3 ‘Where are all the women?’ www.womeninsport.org 18 October 2018
4 ‘There is a real and growing demand for more women’s sport in the UK’, www.womenssporttrust.com, 6 August 2018
5 ‘The Most Powerful Women in Sports: 35 Executives and Influencers Winning Over the Next Generation of Fans’, T.L. Stanley, Adweek, 25 June 2017
6 ‘Fox Sports opens more pathways to women’s sport with expanded coverage’, Amanda Lulham, The Daily Telegraph (Australia), 27 March 2018
7 ‘A sporting chance for women? Gender imbalance on the sports desks of UK national newspapers’, Deidre O’Neill (Huddersfield), Suzanne Franks (City of London), 2016

For further press information please contact the Corporate Communications Team on 01332 591891, pressoffice@derby.ac.uk or @derbyunipress

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